Just when I think I’ve got it figured out, I realize that yet again… I don’t know nearly as much as I thought.
I recently heard the term “compulsion” associated with running, and it stopped me short. A running compulsion? As though running were an addiction, the same way smoking, over-eating, shopping or coffee can be an addiction? Yes. I was totally intrigued and sat down to learn more about this.
Runners experience a release of endorphins and dopamine when they run, which is a sense of “reward”. When endurance athletes cut back on running, have to taper or deal with an injury, they go through withdrawal because they’re not getting their usual supply of endorphins and dopamine. After the withdrawal period, the runner is in a more mellow space and can think logically about their training, motivation, and family/life balance, but they can’t do this until the full amount of endorphins and dopamine is out of their system. Here’s a snippet of information about running, addiction, and emotional and psychological elements that make it difficult to pin anything down.
A blogger at Macalister College (unfortunately I can’t credit the writer directly, I’m not sure who penned this) wrote about The Running Addiction:
“According to the DSMV, a person must exhibit three of the following five criteria in order to be dependent on a substance: tolerance, withdrawal, unsuccessful efforts to cut down intake of the substance, interference with social, occupational, or recreation activities, and continuation of the substance despite recognition that doing so has caused physical or psychological problems.
Let’s consider running as the “substance”. A distance runner will meet all five criteria:
1) Tolerance – over time a runner must run more (or faster) to produce the same physical effects
2) Withdrawal – a runner becomes VERY grumpy when he has to take some time off
3) Unsuccessful efforts to cut down intake of the substance – a runner who has been advised to cut down his mileage will rarely do so. He must run. He hates the taper.
4) Interferes with social, occupational, or recreational activities – the run becomes one of the number one priorities of the day. And because of the lifestyle choices that accompany running certain recreational activities, such as getting loaded the night before a big run, are not possible.
5) Continuation of the substance despite recognition that doing so has caused physical or psychological problems – a broken bone is the only injury that will stop a runner from running.
Moreover, running satisfies common features of addiction
1) Positive reinforcement – a runner is happy after a run
2) Negative reinforcement – running is a release from all problems
3) Craving – if a runner is watching other people run, he will want to run.”
The blogger at Macalister gave us definitive criteria about what it means to be dependent on a substance, but the inference that running satisfies common feature of addiction is harder to quantify mainly because addiction is not only physical, but also emotional and psychological; the three “common features of addiction” are mainly opinions.
A medical study done at Tufts University set out to answer the question: Can people be ADDICTED to running?
“In the study, researchers at Tufts University housed one group of rats in an exercise wheel, while another group had no exercise wheel. All the rats were given Naloxone, a drug that produces immediate withdrawal symptoms. The typically-active rats demonstrated significantly higher levels of withdrawal, similar to those of drug addicts, than the inactive rats. Why? “Exercise, like drugs of abuse, leads to the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins and dopamine, which are involved with a sense of reward,” noted lead author and Tufts professor of psychology Robin Kanarek in LiveScience.
Sure, you seek a runners’ high to keep you going and miss running when you can’t fit it in, but you’re probably not addicted to running. Here’s why:
“The researchers haven’t demonstrated an addiction, what they have demonstrated is a physical dependency,” says Stegner. “It’s the same as when a person is used to drinking coffee regularly and then stops. They have a headache and don’t feel well. That’s a sign of physical dependency, but not necessarily an addiction.” This is where a rat comparison is problematic. In humans, signs of addiction also include an emotional and psychological component. Says Stegner, “We typically ask questions like ‘Are you sacrificing time with your family or job for a chemical? Are you constantly thinking about the next dose?’ Those aren’t questions you can ask a rat,” he says.” –That’s Fit
Because we have brains that are slightly more evolved than rats, we need to look at the emotional and psychological aspects of running if we’re going to discover a true addiction or compulsion.
To start, let’s look at some questions:
Q: Are you sacrificing time (family/job/sleep) to run?
A: No. The time that I run is my own time, scheduled into the week. Running is how I choose to spend that time. I attend all appointments, drive my kids to school, and get my work done regardless of the time that I spend running.
Q: Are you constantly thinking about your next dose?
A: No. I think about a million different things during the day, and running may or may not come up in there depending on the day. I know what my training plan looks like and I have my run times planned out, much like any other appointment.
Q. Is running one of your top priorities throughout the day?
A. Yup. On days when I run, it’s the first thing that happens. When I was training and needed more recovery time, then recovery, hydration and proper fueling became the top priority, and running came second.
Since I’m not a psychologist and I don’t play one on TV, I’ll stop the line of questions there.
So here’s a summary of what we’ve learned: There are physical addictions, and then there are emotional and psychological addictions. A physical addiction is much easier to diagnose than the other two. Running is not a physical addiction. But any compulsion to run could be based on emotional or psychological needs, which makes them all the more slippery to pin down and examine.
I learned a little something with this line of research, and some of what I learned reinforces other things I’ve known. I learned that addiction is physical, and that running isn’t a physical addiction. I’ve known that there has to be a balance between the emotional and psychological benefits to running with the rest of life, but sometimes those lines are muddy. To what extent does physical exercise help a person cope, and when does it take on a life of its own? When those questions can be addressed and answered, the premise that running can have roots in emotional and psychological addictions becomes more relevant.